I owe Time magazine a big apology. Two months ago, when I read its fawning profile of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, which gushed over his fabulous propensity for “the kind of bipartisan dealmaking that no one seems to do anymore,” I thought it was insipid inside-the-Beltway drivel.
Now, however, I have to admit Time was insightful and even prescient. I can’t think of a single other governor in recent times (actually, ever) who has inflicted an apocalyptic four-day traffic jam on the citizens of one of his towns in the name of bipartisanship.
Emails among his flunkies reveal that the governor’s office had several lanes of a heavily traveled bridge in Fort Lee closed because the city’s mayor — a Democrat — had refused to cross party lines and endorse the Republican Christie.
“Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” wrote one. When the problems developed on cue, another noted that school buses were being trapped in the epic snarls and added a note of semi-contrition: “I feel badly about the kids. I guess.” To which another henchman, referring to Christie’s Democratic opponent, Barbara Buono, acidly replied: “They are the children of Buono voters.”
Well, not all of them. The daughter of a 91-year-old Fort Lee woman pronounced dead at a hospital after the ambulance that picked her up was trapped in the traffic jam says her mother was a Christie voter. But how much more hard-core can bipartisanship get than killing off your own supporters?
Time may have been the most fatuous in its embrace of Christie’s straight-shooting-bipartisan image — seriously, did no editor stab himself in the eye upon reading “the guy who loves his mother and gets it done”? — but it was by no means alone in the days before the governor went a bridge too far.
Barbara Walters, in her annual 10 Most Fascinating People television special, called Christie “frank . . . forceful . . . passionate and compassionate . . . iconic.” Bubbled bedazzled CNN anchor Carol Costello: “Chris Christie is a rock star.” MSNBC political analyst Mark Halperin declared him “magical.”
Washington journalists are eternally devoted to the cause of bipartisanship, which they define as a Republican who breaks ranks to embrace liberal causes or Democratic candidates. (Democrats who do the reverse — like those who are edging away from Obamacare in the wake of its inept rollout — are simply cowards or turncoats.)
Bipartisanship may indeed have some merits when applied to an individual issue. No matter which party is in control of which set of offices, at some point, Congress has to pass a budget or approve a president’s judicial appointments, and refusing to budge becomes pointlessly obstreperous.
But any politician who tries to make bipartisanship the foundation of his or her appeal ought to be viewed with suspicion. That’s usually a convenient disguise for a complete lack of principles — or, more correctly, a complete devotion to a single principle, self-advancement.
That’s clearly the case with Christie, who was elected governor in 2009 not because he offered an agenda that appealed to voters but because Democratic incumbent Jon Corzine was mammothly unpopular.
Christie claims to be a fiscal conservative but is happy to increase spending as long somebody else foots the bill. He supported a federally funded $200-million-plus expansion of Medicare in New Jersey, but vetoed bills that would have made it permanent even if Washington cut its contribution.
He ripped Republicans in Congress for being tardy in passing emergency aid for Hurricane Sandy, then grabbed $25 million of the money to make tourism ads starring himself, just as he was facing reelection. He posed to Republican regulars as a Mitt Romney stalwart in 2012, then delivered fulsome, high-profile praise — including a televised hug — to President Obama during the stretch run.
Even Christie’s signature conservative issue, his bare-knuckle battle with New Jersey’s public-employee unions over benefits, has less to do with ideology than the simple fact that the state is so deeply in hock that there’s no other choice.
Though Christie is clearly no conservative and not much of a Republican, a lot of GOP leaders who see him as the best bet in a field of undistinguished potential presidential candidates for 2016 are launching a misguided attempt to defend him over the bridge-to-nowhere controversy. Small stuff, they say, that doesn’t matter and will be forgotten by election season.
They’re wrong on both counts. Unlike the Benghazi attacks or IRS hardball with tea party organizations, the petty vindictiveness of Christie’s traffic malice is something voters can easily understand and relate to themselves. And they will quite rightly wonder if a guy who would pull something like that ought to be trusted with the NSA, the FBI and the CIA.